John Wesley on Animal Salvation

I must apologize for the lack of recent activity on this blog.  I’ve been quite busy writing lectures for two new courses this fall, as well as preparing a paper for the recent “New Creation” conference, jointly sponsored by Northeastern Seminary and the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association.

This post is adapted from one section of my paper at that conference, which focused on John Wesley’s mature theology of “new creation” – a central strand in his later thought, which brought together the personal, social, and cosmic dimensions of salvation.

Wesley Statue at the New Room Bristol via Bob SpeelJohn Wesley had a lifelong interest in animal life, and it is well-known that he was an advocate for the protection of animals against abuse from humans.   But in the final decade of his life, the issue of animal suffering came increasingly into his view as a theological problem, and formed an integral part of his mature theology of the new creation.

Thus he begins his remarkable sermon “The General Deliverance,” written in 1782, with a quotation from Psalm 145:9 in the Book of Common Prayer: “his mercy is over all his works.”  Yet, Wesley asks,

“If the Creator and Father of every living thing is rich in mercy towards all; if he does not overlook or despise any of the works of his own hands, if he desires even the meanest of them to be happy according to their degree –how comes it to pass that such a complication of evils oppresses, yea, overwhelms them?” (Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2)

He answers the question by arguing that all animal suffering, including that which various species currently inflict upon one another to ensure their own survival, is the result of the fall.  Thus, before the fall, animal creation was “happy” and enjoyed a kind of “perfection” according to their kind, which was seen in their loving obedience to humanity, who as God’s vice-regents, were God’s appointed conveyors of blessings to all other creatures.  The obedience of animals to humanity, therefore, could be seen as bearing “some shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness” (§I.5.). In short, animals in the original creation were, Wesley suggests, at peace with humanity and with one another.

Yet, as a result of the fall, humanity’s relationship to God was disrupted, and therefore the blessings of God no longer flow through human stewardship to God’s creatures (§II.1).  After the fall, then, animals came to be at war with one another. It is because of sin that “an immense majority of creatures, perhaps a million to one, can no otherwise preserve their own lives, than by destroying their fellow-creatures!” (§II.3)  Moreover, humanity’s loving and kind stewardship of animal creation has been turned into an exploitative domination, and humanity has become such an enemy of animals that his cruelty surpasses that of a shark hunting its prey (§II.6). Wesley is unwilling to grant that such animosity and brutality is part of God’s original design for his creatures.

Peacable Kingdom by Edward Hicks via wikimedia commonsWhy would God allow animals to be subject to such vanities?  Surely, he reasons, God will one day restore animal creation to a state which is superior to that of the original creation. As they have been subjected to a degree of the corruption brought on by the fall, so also will they be liberated to experience “a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God”” in the new creation (§III.1).  This will entail a greater strength, swiftness, and understanding than each creature in its kind has possessed in the original creation, and, like human creatures, they “will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil” (§III.3). Therefore, as they had originally been able to evidence “a shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness” (§I.5), so in the new creation, “No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood” (§III.3).

Working on the assumption of creation as a “great chain of being,” with humanity occupying a higher place in the chain, and creatures proceeding downwards in accordance with their likeness to the creator, Wesley speculates that all creatures might “move up” one level in the chain, and that some animals might therefore even join humanity in becoming “capable of God.”

“May I be permitted to mention here a conjecture concerning the brute creation What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us “equal to angels,” to make them what we are now, — creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so, ought our eye to be evil because he is good?  However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory” (§III.6).

Lest we think this was a one-time indulgence on Wesley’s part, he ventures the same speculation in his 1785 sermon “The New Creation” (§17).

As I said, these reflections on the place of non-human creatures in God’s plan of redemption are one important aspect of Wesley’s late thinking about the “new creation.”  Some of these ideas might seem strange at first, but in fact they cohere well with Wesley’s overall concern to defend the character of God as just, merciful and loving.  In that sense, we can see deep connections here between how he resolves the issue of animal suffering and his rejection of the Calvinist understanding of predestination: both are rooted in his understanding of the character of God (see my earlier posts about predestination and the character of God here and here).

3 thoughts on “John Wesley on Animal Salvation

  1. James, first of all congratulations to you on your appointment as the Chair of Wesleyan studies at Tyndale. Second, I wonder if Wesley was aware that our Jewish friends do not believe in the concept of a “Fall”?

    • Thanks John! I don’t know if Wesley was aware of that idea. The fall is pretty integral to his thinking so I suspect he wouldn’t give it too much attention if he had encountered it.

  2. Pingback: Animal salvation | Ask Pastor Time | Skillful Shepherds

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